Orwell by the letter

“George Orwell: A Life in Letters” by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison (Liveright, 560 pages, $35)

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.” – George Orwell,

“Politics and the English Language”

Off and on – from the spring of 1946 to the winter of 1948 – George Orwell wandered the foggy lanes of Jura, one of the Hebrides Islands flung off the rugged coast of northern Scotland.

Wracked by tuberculosis, and fighting to finish his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” he drifted like a ghost in some Shakespearean drama.

Gradually reduced to a wraith by the disease that wrecked his lungs, he lay in bed and pounded out another draft of his dystopian masterpiece on a typewriter balanced on his knees. He also composed dozens of letters this way – missives detailing domestic duties shared by his sister, Avril, and often focused on his young adopted son, Richard.

They lived in a farmhouse owned by the family of Orwell’s editor, a pre-eminently rustic place furnished with the barest necessities.

Always something of an ascetic, Orwell welcomed the chance to subsist without electricity, cooking his meals on a gas ring, and slaving over a manual typewriter, his lifeline to the outside world. Yet he also knew that his makeshift environs mirrored the deteriorating state of his health: As the vitality ebbed out of his body, Jura’s cold and clammy climate did little to staunch the flow.

“As I feared, I am seriously ill,” he wrote to George Woodcook, a friend. “T.B. in the left lung.”

When his condition worsened, he moved to a sanatorium in the Cotswolds, in central England. He died there in 1950, just months after publishing the book that would give us such phrases as “Big Brother,” “newspeak,” “thought police” and “Orwellian.”

He was 46 years old.

Even so, Orwell faced his fate unflinchingly. In the spring of 1947, he wrote to his publisher, Frederic Warburg: “I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year … and can’t quite shake it off.”

Then, in one of his last letters, he wrote Warburg again: “On & off I have been feeling absolutely ghastly. It comes & goes, but I have periodical bouts of high temperatures, etc. … Richard has just gone back to Jura & is going to the village school for the winter term. Beyond that I can’t make plans for the moment.”

Soon, there would be no more moments to plan.

But time has been kind to Orwell’s legacy. His was a life well spent: full, vibrant, turbulent at stages, nearly lost at others. Whether in Burma, Spain, Paris or London; whether down and out with only a few shillings to his name, or the newfound darling of the literati, he remained properly British, teeming with convictions about the correct approach to politics and writing, aiming always at a more perfect prose, and standing (when he could) stoically to the end. Stiff upper lip and all that, old chap.

As with many great writers, his influence extended beyond the grave. In his will, he strictly forbade any biography. But when his widow, Sonia, finally relented in 1972, the need for one had arguably passed.

Today, it is almost a moot point. For if we turn to Orwell’s collected letters – published in the United States for the first time in a single volume, and containing several letters not seen before – they come as close to telling his life story as any official biography could.

Not only is the book beautifully made, meticulously edited and hauntingly elegiac, but it proves to be even more indispensable than Orwell’s recently published diaries. Literature trumps gardening in these pages, showing us the courageous heart of a writer committed to his craft.

“Let the meaning choose the word,” Orwell declared in one of his crystalline essays, considered by many as the finest of the 20th century. But, for him, that meaning loomed as something extra-literary, something to be glimpsed through the transparency of his clean, spare prose.

That is one reason the letters sparkle, of course. Another is that Peter Davison, the world’s foremost Orwell scholar, has expertly selected and annotated them. Thus, we can easily grasp the inner workings of Orwell’s literary ambitions and his often touching, often tough-minded interactions with a wide range of authors, from T.S. Eliot (who rejected “Animal Farm” at the Faber & Faber publishing house) to Henry Miller to Arthur Koestler to Anthony Powell.

And we can just as easily grasp his sorrows.

In 1945, he wrote to Powell about his wife: “Eileen is dead. She died very suddenly and unexpectedly on March 29th during an operation which was not supposed to be very serious. … It was a most horrible thing to happen.”

Not long after, Orwell’s editor, David Astor, offered him the Jura farmhouse as a refuge. Astor likely sensed that even without the burden of illness or the loss of a spouse, Orwell was becoming a virtual hermit, an anchorite struggling to find the final bursts of creativity to finish his book – never believing that he would fail, yet recognizing his limits all the same.

“I tell you this chiefly because I feel I must stop working, or rather trying to work, for at least a month or two,” he wrote to Astor in December 1948. “I would have gone to a sanatorium two months ago if I hadn’t wanted to finish that bloody book off, which thank God I have done.”

Most readers are thankful, too, for the sheer moral force of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” one of the classic novels of the 20th century – a withering portrayal of the nihilism that feeds all the corrupt, violent politics that still pollute our planet. But for Jacintha Buddicom, Orwell’s youthful sweetheart and author of “Eric and Us,” the book constituted an act of betrayal.

The famous scene in which Winston Smith, the tale’s everyman protagonist, and Julia (no last name) express their newfound love only stirred Buddicom’s anger, as she wrote to a friend in 1972.

“At least you have not had the public shame of being destroyed in a classic book as Eric (Blair, before he took his pen name) did to me. Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four is clearly Jacintha, of that I feel certain. He describes her with thick dark hair, being very active, hating politics – and their meeting place was a dell full of bluebells. … (I)n the end he absolutely destroys me, like a man in hob nailed boots stamping on a spider.”

That last image comes directly from the novel, a work of a lifetime, recapitulating the themes of “Animal Farm,” which Orwell fought long and hard to get published. The irony is that he thought he had perfected his literary style in the earlier book.

“Good prose is like a window pane,” he tells us in the essay “Why I Write”: You must be able to see through it. In his letters, he shows us that the world we glean through the sparkling glass may be wondrous, complex and loving, yet finally painful to behold.